Reclaiming Lesbian Space

 Lesbian Festivals 1975-2004

Lesbian Festivals were a welcome part of lesbian culture from early women’s liberation days. For example, an early record of a lesbian festival held in Australia is of one held in October 1975 on the campus of the University of Melbourne.the most remarkable was held in July 1991 with a concert at the Sydney Opera House. Subsequently, they were held annually at different venues in Australia until 2002.

However, trans activism put a stop to that in 2003, when LesFest 2004 was eventually cancelled and a private pary held in its place, after Sally Gouldner, one of the founders of Transgender Victoria, took the organisers to court for advertising the event as being for “lesbian born female only.” Although  the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) granted the organisers an exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act , that was overturned after challenge and the organisers were faced with the possibility of costly litigation, leading them to cancel the advertised event.

Sappho’s Party, South Australia 2006
An early effort to reclaim lesbian space,  and resist growing and unwanted attention of heterosexual men identifying as women, was in South Australia in 2006. Sappho’s Party Inc, a  single-sex association of lesbians raised female, was legally constituted to hold a private social event–a reunion that aimed to continue a 15-year tradition of annual national lesbian gatherings. Initially, the event was advertised by word-of-mouth but a pamphlet was produced and distributed at a public event in Sydney where a reporter found it.  The news had escaped into the public arena.
When a transidentified man (who had earlier migrated from England as a married man) learned of it, the party organisers (compassionately) rejected his application to attend. He then  made a complaint of discrimination that was heard by the Equal Opportunity Tribunal of South Australia.  He received financial support from the Tribunal that was representing his case of discrimination, whereas Sappho’s Party was refused Legal Aid.
You can read the court’s summary of the case of O’Keefe v Sappho’s Party Inc  SAEOT50 (24 April 2009) and the judgements made here.  Sappho’s Party won the case (two judges dismissed O’Keefe’s application and the third dissented), but only just before a new law was passed that would not have been so favourable. Sappho’s Party was not awarded damages and was out of pocket by about$10,000–a lot of money for the organisers to find. Although crowd funding was only an early innovation in Australia then, Sappho’s Party managed to raise enough to pay for copies of Court notes and other costs, plus a small fee for legal representation by Jocelyn Scutt, who worked for their defence together with Joanna Richardson and one other solicitor who represented them pro bono.
Despite the many submissions and articles that supported them (see, for example, Susan Hawthorne’s 2021 article, the LGBAA website, Julie Szego’s online article, and Brian Martin’s online article in defence of free speech ), and submissions to the AHRC by the Erinyes Autonomous Activist Lesbians and by the ROAR Feminist Collective, Sappho’s Party decided they could not afford to take the case further. Sappho’s Party Inc continues to exist and holds a small amount of residual money for future defence of lesbian space.
O’Keefe’s application was a nuisance one with an apparent political motive to deprive lesbians of our right of association, as he had made it clear in the Tribunal that he had had no intention to attend. The dissenting judge also pointed out O’Keefe had received a lot of free publicity during the hearing.
The outcome for lesbians in Australia has been that we could continue to hold our annual gatherings but they could not be advertised as a public event.
This has been having widespread and detrimental repercussions for lesbian culture in Australia and for individuals  wanting to overcome isolation and find other lesbians, for young lesbians reaching out to explore their sexuality and for older lesbians who have ‘come out’ later in life.
The lesbian struggle to restore our right of association continues. See, for example, the LAG story below
Lesbian Action Group (LAG) Victoria

in 2023 the Lesbian Action Group re-formed to hold a lesbian dance at the Pride Centre, Melbourne, which refused their application.

LAG then applied to the Australia Human RIghts Commission (AHRC) for an exemption from the Anti Discrimination Act so they could hold a private function for lesbians only. They defined lesbians as women born female. Despite many supportive submissions to the AHRC, their application was rejected, resulting in the unjust outcome that lesbians continue to be deprived of our right of association and risk legal sanctions (for being discriminatory against men who want to be women) and sexual harassment and worse by those men and their allies.

See the herstory and other information on LAG that CoAL has prepared, via this link.

Also see the LAG website via this link.

Note: LGB Alliance Australia provide evidence that gay men have been continually issued with exemptions to the SDA to hold men only functions. They conclude that lesbians are being treated in a discriminatory way because: “trans identifying males are challenging lesbians who apply for single sex exemptions, whereas this is not happening for gay men.”